Yesterday I posted the first part of my interview with Pittsburgh Pirates Minor League Pitching Coordinator Jim Benedict. Part one focused on his job duties as a pitching coordinator, as well as some of the philosophies in the Pirates’ system. Part two will focus more on individual players. As I mentioned in part one, this interview was conducted near the end of Spring Training, so some parts of the questions and answers will be a bit dated, although the rest of the answers give a good look at the individuals.
Jeff Locke is a guy who started out in high-A last year, and there’s talk about him starting off in AA, with him being optioned there out of big league camp. Is he going to start in AA?
He was optioned to AA, so for the most part where they’re optioned to is where they’re going from the 40-man roster. So that’s kind of done at that time. Jeff Locke is on the come. He’s really done well, he’s committed, his delivery, his command, all of his pitches are going. It’s just a matter of being exposed every fifth day, because we believe he can be a starting pitcher in the major leagues. And we’re training him to be that. There’s two leagues. There’s the minor leagues and the big leagues. It doesn’t always matter where in the minor leagues you are. You’re still in the minor leagues. And there’s a certain major league development, you have to be prepared to go up to the big leagues and develop further. There’s certain things in the minor leagues, no matter how good of job that you do, not going to prepare you until you get up and do it. That being said, you want to hit the ground running when you get there. So there’s some tough decisions. Guys like him can speed up the decisions, other guys can slow it down.
Aaron Thompson has struggled as a starter in the past. You guys have a lot of starters at the AA/AAA level, and there’s a need for left handers in the majors. Are you guys looking at him as a starter more, continuing there, or are you going to move him over to relief?
He’s a starting pitcher prospect, he’s 23 years old. He’s left handed, he’s got three plus pitches when he does things the way he did. Delivery wise you can see that his foundation in high school is much better than the one he brought in to pro-ball, which happens a lot. Guys get trained and taught certain things that maybe shouldn’t have been taught to them so soon, or at all, and you lose it. So we’re trying to get him back to being that starting pitching prospect, and in so doing, if he goes to the big leagues, it could be out of the bullpen, and then he becomes a starter in the big leagues. But the more innings you throw, the more repetitions you get, the better you get. And as far as role profiling, to do that too soon, to stick a guy in the bullpen, to train him how to be a reliever. That’s done, but more at the AAA level on an older guy.
What was it specifically with Thompson that you identified to use a waiver claim to pick him up from the Washington Nationals?
His history is a former first round pick. He’s very athletic. Extremely athletic. Athletic to the degree that he could do bad things in his delivery. Lost his fastball aggression along the way. Really, some of the drill things that he was made to do, like the towel drill, which I don’t think very highly of, and a lot of casualties have come from that drill itself. He did that drill quite a bit, and it caused a lot of dysfunction. So getting rid of that drill, creating downhill plane angles, getting power back, has been what we’ve been doing since I saw him first day in big league camp, and just trying to string those out. A lot like some of the other guys, Morris, Tony Watson. They’ve gone through some things to get a downhill plane, angle, and fastball aggression. That’s all he’s doing, because he lost all of those things, with the Marlins, and with Washington. He just lost his way.
You mentioned you don’t like the towel drill. How common is that now? Is that pretty wide spread, and what is it that you don’t particularly like about it?
It’s a long story, but the towel drill, in theory, is a drill that is used for your delivery, without throwing a ball. So it’s no stress. But if you watch the way the towel drill is done, it makes you drive your head down, it makes your arm get next to your head, so you have more of a dart path, than a push, and you end up cutting the ball. And the problem is, the towel drill is not the problem, as much as how many times. If you give a committed athlete a towel and say “this is going to help you”, they’re likely to take it in their room and do a thousand of them, versus 15, or 10, where it doesn’t become the muscle memory that you don’t want. This is just something over the years that I’ve seen, and in theory it’s practicing your delivery without throwing. We don’t do that here. We don’t throw footballs, we don’t use weighted balls, we don’t do towels. Those are gimmicks. We throw the ball. We throw a lot here. And throwing programs, and we do a lot of shadow work where it’s no ball, no nothing, just your hand and your delivery, working on certain things that are inside your delivery. You can see some of the casualties of the towel and what it does.
We broke down Tim Alderson’s delivery on the site, noticing that he didn’t have the same follow through as pitchers like Stetson Allie, and that he was also dropping his arm. Is that something that you have addressed with Alderson?
The thing with Tim is he has an unorthodox delivery. He had it in high school. The delivery he has now is not much unlike the one he had in high school. Now his arm on the back side doesn’t get up when he lands. So when he lands, there’s no “L” in the back side. So what happens, it causes a push. So he needs to buy more time on the back side to be able to get his arm up to be able to do those things that you mentioned the other players do. That’s what we’re working on. Like I said, I don’t really have any video or any pitch that I’ve seen where he’s back there, but I’ve got plenty of it in high school. So between high school and when he became a Pirate, there was an arm action on the back side that was lost. We’re trying to get that back right now. We get that back, we’ll have a better velocity, I mean he was 88-91 the other day on our guns. His curveball, the shape of his curveball, will show you if it’s working or not. Not that he needs to have a big time breaking ball right now, but that shape is created by that delivery.
These things do not happen overnight. It didn’t happen overnight to create this scenario, and it won’t happen overnight to fix these things. They’re not one bullpen things where “everything’s great, now let’s go”. It’s a lot of process, he’s putting in a lot of work. He puts in time, we watch the video together, and he understands it. Now when we just go watch the game, games speed up, get competitive, your aggression, your adrenaline kick in. Some of those things take you forward, so you lose that. So he does a better job in the bullpen right now than the game. And you might have seen that. He was better in the pen than the game as soon as the game started. And he was better in the windup than in the stretch. Because those things are forward moving, trying to be quicker with all of those things. There’s drills that he’s doing, he’ll pitch in a game like that, we’ll go and watch video and say “how did you do that? Did you get (the arm) up in the back? Not how did you do in the game, was it 92? Was the ball cutting? What’s the shape of your breaking ball? What does that mean you’ve got here?” Those are the types of things we’re working on, and it takes time. He’s a young guy. His body has changed. He’s a different person emotionally. And all of those things are factors on how fast he can get this accomplished. You just work hard every day until these things happen, and you’re not sure what day they happen, and everything comes back.
You’ve been working with Jameson Taillon on taking a jump out of his delivery. How has he been coming along with that?
[Editor's Note: This interview happened the same day that I saw Taillon pitch in Spring Training. You can view the video here.] This was his first game after doing that for a couple weeks. Good. He was downhill today, he had a bunch of ground balls, and even the fly balls that he gave up, the hitters had to climb under it. His velocity was 94-98, something like that. I think the velocity is going to get better, not better than 98, harder. That’s all because of getting to the back side and throwing the ball downhill. The bouncing of the back knee is just something for him that he did in high school that he thought gained velocity, and while gaining velocity he lost angle. So he accomplished what he wanted to accomplish, he was throwing hard. Now, these hitters, you can throw 98, but if it’s flat and up, they’re going to turn it around. He’s learned that here. We’re going slow as you can go as far as delivery goes. It’s not a big deal. These aren’t big changes. These are little changes. They’re healthy, back over the rubber things. He’s taken to them because he’s a student of delivery, he’s a student of the game for his age, and he’s committed.
I was watching Dovydas Neverauskas, who is from a unique place that doesn’t produce many baseball players, and he was in the lower 90s, 91-94 range. Is he for real?
He’s a prospect. He’s got long arms, a big body. Gonna grow more. Gonna be a huge man. He’s been exposed to a lot of international baseball, versus structure, like this is structured baseball. He’s been exposed to tournaments. That’s what they do over there. A lot of countries, that’s all they do is tournaments. So he’ll go nine, three times a month, then they won’t pitch for two months. So this is a different structure for them. The culture is different, the travel, everything is different for them. But no, he’s a legit guy, he’s young and he’ll be crude for awhile, and then it will start to come together for him. As long as he stays healthy, he’ll get consistent innings, and the process itself should elevate him to a pretty good looking guy for us.
Where is Cesar Lopez at in his development right now?
He just pitched for the first time, and did it against our own guys. He was highly thought of by our scouts. He has a feel to pitch, he throws it over. He’s got a good history of throwing strikes, with all of his pitches. He’s got a good body, and he appears to be very intelligent. So from the grass roots of it, he looks like a guy we’ve got to get consistent work, and start at the Extended Spring, have him go every fifth day, and build him up.
Stetson Allie has been a little bit wild, but good movement on his pitches from what I’ve seen. How is that going to affect him this year in his first year as a pro with where he starts out and with his development?
He was clearly a thrower in high school. He was a light up the gun guy. We’ve talked extensively about that, smoothing him out to get him in the zone. You’ll see flashes of it. If you see him in the bullpen, he nails it every time. He gets a little bit of energy, he gets adrenaline going in the game, he loses it a little bit. But if you watch him, say if he throws 25 pitches, he’ll throw 10 where you want it, then the next time out he’ll throw 13 out of the 25. It’s just a build up of the confidence. And once you feel that delivery, then you’re able to repeat it. He’s never been asked to repeat anything. He’s just been asked to get after it, get after it, and that’s what he’s done. We’re trying to make him pitch, and just like Taillon, angles, extension, feel.
Those are the things that we’re working on with him. I think he’s going to be fine. If we just transfer him from thrower to pitcher, that’s not an overnight process, especially when he’s a third baseman in high school, and a power hitter, and an arm strength guy. Not that we’re cookie cutting him, but teaching him a pitcher’s delivery, one that fits his body. There’s going to be timing issues because his wanting to throw hard kind of makes those timings go astray. But, like I said, in a controlled environment, and the bullpen, you’ll see everything you want to see long term. It’s just not there right now in a competitive environment, especially with people watching, peer pressure, the guns everywhere, and all of those things. They can make you get away from things that you’re working on.